Original art by Manet
Welcome to the first-ever Twenty-Six & Then Some Op-Ed. Opinions expressed are my own…obviously.
I grew up in a loud household.
In fact, it wasn’t just our family, but my mom’s entire side of the family. If you wanted to get a word in, waiting for a pause in conversation so you could speak, or someone asking for your opinion, was about as far fetched as your boss giving you a promotion out of the kindness of their heart. It wasn’t going to happen. Instead, you had one of three options:
- Abruptly insert yourself into the conversation
- Try to insert yourself, get cut-off, try again
- Tell a wildly inappropriate joke
While it felt atypical compared to my friends, this dynamic helped create a group of proudly independent, assertive, and strong women in my family (I’m one of three sisters). We learned how to carry our own, stand up for our opinions, and to not be afraid to insert ourselves into tough situations. It’s a trait I’ve carried with me and it has helped me climb the corporate ladder. But as a female in the workplace, assertiveness can often be misconstrued, even if Sheryl Sandberg never started talking about being “bossy”.
This is precisely why this Wall Street Journal article about the price female leaders pay for assertiveness, and their suggestions on how to minimize it, caught my attention. I clicked on the article, ready to nod my head with each word.
“We found that women, on average, were disparaged more than men for identical assertive behaviors.”
Nod. Nod. Yes. Yes.
“Women were particularly penalized for direct, explicit forms of assertiveness, such as negotiating for a higher salary or asking a neighbor to turn down the music.”
“It certainly isn’t ideal—or fair—but by using these alternative expressions of leadership, women can sidestep the prejudices that make it hard to keep the respect and admiration of their team.”
Wait what? “Alternative expressions of leadership”? Why do women need alternative expressions of leadership?! We aren’t “alternative” beings.
The article goes on to state, “When people see a woman asking for something, they may interpret her act of dominance as inappropriate, as out of bounds for women. Yet when people see a woman stand tall and speak loudly, they tend not to consciously label such behaviors as dominance…”
Ok, Dr. Williams (nice last name, BTW), I’ll play ball for a second. Outside of “standing tall and speaking loudly” (I’m 5’9.5” and speaking loudly is kind of in my genes), what else do you suggest? Wait for it…
Feel free to drape an arm over the adjacent chair, to touch a colleague’s arm when speaking, or to lean in—literally.
Drape an arm? DRAPE AN ARM?! In a world where we are battling ridiculous gender wage inequality and the number of female leaders is still dismal, the advice we have to help confident women defy stereotypes is to drape an arm and touch someone? Is it just me or does this insight feel completely backwards and not focused on the larger issue at hand?
Now, Dr. Williams, I understand that you are the bearer of this research and these insights, not the creator. This advice isn’t something you hatched up on your own and thought that the WSJ was the perfect place to proclaim to the world that a solution rests within these silly non-verbal cues. I do give you credit for noting that this isn’t a long-term solution for women’s professional challenges and that body language isn’t going to cut it. You’re doing your job to further the conversation about women in the workplace, and for that, I applaud you.
But may I kindly ask that we officially ban “draping” from any advice on how assertive women can shift perception in the workplace? Casual and loose arm placement seems like the opposite of leaning in. And while touching someone can show empathy or support, it really is dependant on someone’s upbringing, culture, or your relationship with them. In fact, I’m a hugger. But making contact, particularly with those you don’t know very well, can increase confusion.
So allow me to propose a few other solutions to help shift perception:
- Be a chameleon. A chameleon is still a chameleon, but it adapts to its environment. Adapting to meet your surroundings and communicating accordingly is a skill that everyone can use. Here’s how: address the environment, assess the social situation, and adapt actions accordingly. Meet them. Don’t think that everyone is going to meet you.
- Frame the situation. There are three ways to do it and it’s all comes back to communication. Prepare them for direct messaging, align your comments to a “sense of principles”, or prep people in that they might not like what they’re about to hear. It’s not an apology, but about acknowledgment and bringing colleagues along.
- It’s all about the relationships. People may only see you for your assertiveness and their opinions of what that means can vary widely. But if they get to know what else goes into making you the unstoppable woman that you are, they’ll learn to understand you, your background, and your communication style. It will help create a more productive work environment and you might make some close friends along the way.
- Be kind. It’s simple really, but assertiveness and kindness aren’t exclusive. At the end of the day, we’re all people. People that will remember more about how you treated them over what you said.
Let’s recognize that assertiveness is not a negative. She isn’t bossy, bitchy, rude, or aggressive. It’s a proclamation that a woman isn’t afraid to be confident, to have a strong personality, and to carry herself in a manner that may be different from preconceived notions. She’s assertive and that’s a beautiful thing.
So forgive me if this post is overly aggressive. Wait, wait, I need to stop apologizing too.